At the old courthouse, some traditions die hard

NATIONAL CLOSEUP

October 28, 1994|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,Sun Staff Correspondent

FRANKFORT, Ind. -- Don't go looking for a judge in Clinton County on Thursday afternoons. Or the tax assessor. The county surveyor. Even the treasurer.

They work in the domed, limestone courthouse in the center of town, which for nearly a half-century has shut its doors at noon Thursday for the rest of the day.

It's a holdover from the war. The Big War. WW2.

"Years ago when the war broke out, everyone was trying to conserve energy," says Jan Conner, amateur historian and the county township assessor. "The town and the entire community of Clinton County chose to close down all businesses and the courthouse at noon on Thursday."

Traditions die hard in this central Indiana town of 15,000, named for Germany's bustling port city Frankfurt.

In the old days, banks and retailers lining the square block that surrounds the big, old courthouse also shut down on Thursday afternoons. The Farmers Bank, which opened in 1876, still does.

Over the years, as the Kmarts and Wal-Marts sprang up in commercial strips outside of town, more and more retailers on the square abandoned the Thursday closing tradition. Kern Brothers Shoe Store, a fixture on the square since 1924, was one that reopened its doors.

"Oh lordy, it's been 25 years ago, I expect," said Bob Kern, the 72-year-old owner whose father, Ray, adhered to the war closings way back when.

Clinton County -- home of Zerna Sharp (author of the Dick and Jane stories), Vesto Slipher (astronomer whose research led to Pluto's discovery) and Will Geer (the grandfather in "The Waltons" television series) -- isn't the only place where courthouse employees take a break during the week.

Throughout America, businesses, government offices, doctors and dentists in small towns close on a midweek afternoon, a custom practiced for years.

"It's been customary in a lot of places to close on Wednesday afternoon," said Frank Dietter, an 81-year-old retired dentist in Holley, N.Y., "because they were open Saturday afternoon. That's as good a reason as I could give you. The boys needed time off, you know, the merchants, to play golf or whatever."

"Courthouses traditionally were open all day Saturday or 8 a.m. to noon to accommodate the needs of farmers," said John J. Newman, a former Indiana state archivist who now works as director of information management for the state Supreme Court in Indianapolis. "They would just come in to pay taxes, transfer deeds, file court cases. Interestingly enough, the whole business community closed the same day that the clerk's office closed."

But in Frankfort, they insist that it was the war, not farmers, that started their custom.

So what do the people of Frankfort do with a free afternoon? A round of golf? A hand of bridge? A ladies lunch?

"That's the time when you have to have dental appointments and doctor appointments and things like that. [Things] that you can't do on the weekends," said Peggy Myers, the Clinton County deputy assessor who has worked in the courthouse since 1958.

Circuit Judge Jack O'Neill, who metes out justice from an ornate, oak-trimmed courtroom on the courthouse's third floor, might handle cases in another county that afternoon.

"Or I stay up there and work," said the judge. "It's the only time people don't bother you."

But in this day and age when voters complain about do-nothing public servants, some people have complained about the shorter workweek. (The Frankfort courthouse does stay open later on Fridays.)

"They think we're cheating them," said Joseph M. Gossard, president of the County Commission. "It's a matter of arithmetic. Perception, also."

Mr. Gossard believes that the 34-hour workweek might soon be a relic of the past.

Mrs. Conner, the curious amateur historian, thinks otherwise.

"Our commissioners and our council have talked about making us work on Thursdays many times," she said.

"But it never passes."

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